north koreaNorth Korea seems to be grabbing our attention more and more often these days. The reasons that the country keeps showing up in the news include nuclear weapons, over-the-hill American basketball players, and assassination among the family of the ruling dictatorship. So, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise then, that methamphetamine is widely available and casually used in North Korea.

Is Drug Use Allowed

In North Korea, drug use is one area in every day life that has not been heavily policed, and there are no cultural taboos or moral codes against it. Also, legal pain relievers are not widely available, so opium paste is often used. Marijuana can also be legally grown at home, usually mixed with tobacco.

Up through the 1990’s, the North Korean government and it’s “Office 39” manufactured opium, meth, and other drugs to sell and bring money into the country. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two North Korean firms linked to Office 39 of the Korean government: the Korea Daesong Bank and Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation, which it described as “key components of Office 39’s financial network supporting North Korea’s illicit and dangerous activities.”

But then the government basically went out of the drug production business, according to the US State Department’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. When the North Korean government ran the business, the drugs were manufactured to sell outside the country. Since the government left the business, private manufacturing of meth has skyrocketed, both for use by North Koreans and for smuggling out of the country. The chronic high unemployment rate in the country has caused people to turn to meth manufacturing. Allegedly, the North Korean government is cracking down on the private meth labs, but this could possibly be just a sign that the government is once again trying to take control of the industry. With all of its other problems, the government may be simply try to make a quick buck again.

Offered up as Casually as a Cup of Tea

North Koreans say there is little stigma attached to meth use. Some take it to treat colds or to boost their energy; students take it to work late. The drug also helps curb appetites in a country where food is scarce. It is offered up as casually as a cup of tea, North Koreans say. Some feel it’s no different than drinking a cup of coffee to give you a pick-me-up. Others offer it to guests the way we might offer a hot or cold beverage.

The fact that the North Korean government allows widespread use of drugs by its people could lead one to wonder if it isn’t a strategy on the part of North Korea’s leadership to help keep the people under control. If your attention is focused on making, selling, buying, or using meth, then your attention is focused less on the other everyday problems of life in North Korea, such as the scarcity of food.

As long as the government of North Korea supports and uses the illicit drug industry as a money-making activity and as a control factor over its people, change is unlikely to happen. Eventually North Korea will find itself in the middle of a meth epidemic, as other countries have. If you can educate people about the dangers of drugs and addiction, you can start to turn the tide. The internet has very good resources for drug education, such as “The Truth About Drugs”, on the Foundation for a Drug-Free World website.[1] But in North Korea, where hardly anyone outside the government and the military has access to the internet, this is much more difficult.


Reuters: North Korea’s shady “Office 39”

Sydney Morning Herald: In North Korea, meth is offered as casually as a cup of tea